Alexis and David Thurston understand the power of mobile marketing. With phones in hand, they've...
Alexis and David Thurston understand the power of mobile marketing. With phones in hand, they've learned new ways to reach clients, solicit new stylists and connect with the overall industry. Photo by Matt Mackey III. Makeup by Allison Brooke.

If you’re like most people, at one point in your childhood you fantasized about joining the circus. Perhaps you were drawn to the idea of traveling to distant lands. Maybe you wanted to immerse yourself in a new family of interesting and exotic personalities. Or, possibly you were blessed with a unique talent and you dreamt of showcasing it in front of an enthralled audience.

Today, a handful of stylists from around the country are living out those daydreams by joining Butterfly Circus, a traveling group of some of the most followed and well-known hair stylists and independent educators on social media. Touring the U.S., teaching cutting, coloring, styling and social media classes, Butterfly Circus is the brainchild of David and Alexis Thurston, the husband and wife duo who own Butterfly Loft Salons and UBungalows in Encino, California.

This ensemble of educators is just one of the amazing outcomes that occurred as the Thurstons made a concentrated effort to grow and leverage their social media presence. They’ve also built a national brand for their salon which attracts both talent and clients from all over the country, and now they’re launching a line of
vibrant, fashion haircolor.  

The Social Rise

Like many salon owners, the Thurstons initially experienced hesitation about social media—especially when it came to helping the artists who work in their salon grow their own profiles.

“What if by growing their profiles, we open them up to being poached by other salons? Will product companies start marketing directly to them, and we’ll lose control as the gatekeeper of the salon?” David Thurston says. “Those are the kinds of questions we asked ourselves.”

Instead of featuring salon news, and product and service specials on their social media sites, the Thurstons decided to take their strategy in a different direction. They use their site to promote and celebrate the individual talents of their team members, while setting their goal at drawing a following of professionals, as well as clients.

“For us, that was a way to gain traction while attracting stylists who want to work with us,” says David, whose salons rent both stations and bungalows to stylists. “For example, we’ll even feature posts about how to raise prices.”

The professional focus opened up a channel of conversation between Butterfly Loft and the overall beauty community, with amazing results. “It used to be if you wanted to develop a national salon brand, you had to open locations in a number of major cities, but we figured out how to be known with locations in just one city, and it’s led to so many great opportunities,” David says.

Their growing social media presence has completely challenged the way the Thurstons fill their chairs. “We don’t recruit now, they seek us out,” Alexis says. “As a stylist, wouldn’t you want to work at a salon that offers you more opportunity for your work to be noticed and recognized all over the world? We create win/win relationships with our stylists. They create great content, and we share that content to let people know we do great hair. It’s an upward spiral showing how the salon owner and stylists can work together.”

Creating InstaFame

Before the Thurstons could help their stylists develop their own social presences, they had to commit themselves. Alexis, who also works in the salon as a stylist, started with her personal social media profile.

“I was tempted to close my Instagram account two years ago. I’d already worked very hard to build a huge and loyal clientele and I was extremely busy—but I wasn’t doing the kind of client that I was interested in showcasing,” she says. “As a salon owner and mentor to our stylists, I knew I needed to take action and commit because I could see the change social media was making in the beauty industry. So I started getting hair models for the type of clients I wanted to attract and to create better content on Instagram. I learned how to take good pictures to post, and only put up the best content.”

Once Alexis took the step to build her own profile, she quickly started to see the return in her chair.

“It brought me more exposure and opportunity, and gave me a platform to express myself and I’ve become a recognizable person of influence with a positive message in the beauty industry,” she says.

During the past two years, Alexis purged about 70% of her former clientele by giving them to other stylists in the salon.

“This has also allowed me to focus on other areas like education, business ventures, and achieving new goals,” she says.

The Thurstons starting hosting dinners with their stylists, sharing best practices for Instagram. Image by Matt Mackey III. Makeup by Allison Brooke.

Sharing the Spotlight

The Instagram fame established by the Butterfly Loft stylists doesn’t happen passively, it’s very on-purpose.

“The skills required to be a good Instagrammer are different than the skills required to be a good stylist,” David says.

The Thurstons took it upon themselves to make sure social media education was part of what they offered the stylists who worked in their salons.

“We started taking small groups of 8-10 team members to dinner to discuss best social media practices, and we’d make sure they are in,” David says. “We talk about how to create great pictures, the importance of a solid background, what kinds of styles are Instagrammable.”

As each of the Butterfly Loft stylists started to build their own social presence, the Thurstons boost their popularity by celebrating their best work on the salon’s social feeds, which in turn builds the popularity of the salon. Among the three locations, the Thurstons have more than 70 stylists, and David says he posts about three images a day. “More than that, and I feel like we’re spamming,” he says.

Getting featured on the salon’s Instagram becomes a point of pride for Butterfly stylists. But David is quick to point out that pride is escalated because he and Alexis don’t stress about everyone getting an equal turn on the salon’s social pages.

“We post the best images—the ones that are the most interesting and exhibit the best work,” he says. “And, if we’ve shared a particular stylist’s work 10 times recently it’s because he or she has earned it, and I tell the team they should feel grateful to that stylist because showing off that awesome work is going to bring in more clients.” 

When the salon does feature a stylist’s work on the salon’s page, the Thurstons stress it’s important to tag the stylist, as well as include his or her name and location

“Now when new clients call the salon for the first time, they often are calling in to request an appointment with a particular stylist because they have been following that stylist’s work,” David says. “Or we also can refer a new client to our page to check out different stylists work. It’s become a great tool.”

David laughs as he recalls that Instagram is diversifying the salon’s clientele, too. One of their stylists recently posted a few images with young Asian clients with bright blondes or vibrant color, and now the salon’s been attracting young Asian clients from all over Los Angeles.

Featuring the team’s work on the salon’s facebook also encourages stylists to share and celebrate with each other.

“When a stylist has a client in her chair, she rarely is looking over at what her co-workers are doing,” David says. “Posting the work encourages them to share ideas and techniques with each other.”

The focus on social media also is a windfall for the stylists. One Butterfly stylist Janai Hartt (@harttofcolor) had fewer than 2,000 followers on Instagram when she first started at Butterfly Loft a year ago. Now she has more than 35,000 followers.

“It’s pretty incredible when you think about how many people are seeing our stylists’ work when we post it,” David says. “That’s like taking a bow in front of a sold-out crowd in Madison Square Garden.”

“Our stylists frequently tell stories of people commenting how awesome it is they work at Butterfly Loft Salon,” Alexis says. “On a weekly basis, we get clients from all over the world who fly in just to get their hair here.”

The Thurstons are always looking at how technology is changing, and exploring ways to take advantage of that.

“With their phone in hand, stylists are becoming far more independent, and they are going to start asking themselves why they need to have a salon owner,” David says. “We’re using social media to create more value and create a team atmosphere where they can be more successful here than they can on their own or down the street.”

And, the Butterfly stylists are finding success. David says it used to take several years for a new stylist to build a full book and start really making money. Now, the salon has stylists who are younger than 25 and are so busy they are renting two chairs so they can keep a full-time assistant.

“There weren’t more clients in the world, all of a sudden, it’s just through social media they were finding us—we were no longer just a neighborhood salon,” David says. “From a salon owner perspective, we went from a salon being in demand to a salon that was in high demand.”

Click here to check out the Thurston's specific social media tips.

Building a Circus

As Alexis and David grew a national and international presence on social media, they also began developing online relationships with other stylists who’d found Instagram fame.

The Thurstons also observed that their stylists were less likely to watch one three-hour educational tutorial on YouTube than they would six 30-minute tutorials posted by different artists.

David and Alexis started thinking about how much the people they were befriending through social media had to offer, and how they could organize that talent in a way that would appeal to stylists who hungered for more education.

“What good is a journey, if you can’t share it with other people?” Alexis says. “I don’t want to be a solo act, there’s strength in numbers and there’s joy and growth in collaborating.”

As a result, the Thurstons launched Butterfly Circus ( a team of independent educators who join together to put on large-scale education events around the country.

“Our education is innovative, fast-paced and presented in a demo format that breaks from traditional salon education,” David says. “Instead of having one instructor that teaches one class on a single subject, attendees are able to see several different presentations from their favorite Instagram heroes and see it live.”

Classes can vary from overall bold cutting and coloring techniques to styling, braiding, updos, and business and social media classes. The first show of the Butterfly Circus held sold out immediately. Because the Thurstons have the ability to market not only to their own social networks, but leverage the social feeds of the Butterfly Circus artists, announcements are reaching more than a million people.

“We find the venue and take in the revenue, and if six people are teaching at an event, we split the net profits equally with those six artists,” David explains.

Not all Butterfly Circus members teach at each class. Instead, after the Thurstons locate a venue in a city, they reach out to develop an interesting mix of talent for each show.

Butterfly Circus artists recently banded together to launch Pulp Riot haircolor--the collaborative group of owners include (from left) Iris Smith, Rickey Zito, Jenny Strebe, Ash Fortis, David Thurston, Jay Wesley Olson, Alexi Thurston and Linh Phan.

“By doing that, we’ve loosely developed two teams that tend to teach together,” David says. “Occasionally we bring on other artists who have big names, but might not have as big of social followings—artists like Howard McClaren and Robert Cromeans.”

“It’s been incredibly rewarding forming powerful friendships with other Circus instructors,” Alexis says. “We inspire each other to be better at everything we do.”

Coloring a New Rainbow

Since much of what resonates well on Instagram includes hair with vibrant, bold colors, the team of Butterfly Circus artists starting thinking about creating a color line. On June 15th, the resulting company, Pulp Riot
debuted its initial launch of 16 semipermanent vibrant colors.

During the creation of Pulp Riot, the Thurstons took a collaborative approach to building their team by forming an ownership group of some well-known stylists and educators, including Rick Zito, Ash Fortis, Jay Wesley Olson, Iris Smith, Linh Phan and Jenny Strebe.

After social media enouraged the Butterfly Circus artists to work together on education, they debuted their collaborative product launch on June 15--Pulp Riot, a collection of 16 semi permanent graphic colors.

“These artists were instrumental in the formulation of the color line and will continue to be heavily involved in the company’s product education, product development and marketing,” David says.

The Pulp Riot artists also got boosted through a strategic alliance with Luxury Brand Partners, who will enhance the color line reach in the professional salon segment.

“The Thurstons have a history of creating successful companies that transform the beauty industry,” says Tev Finger, CEO of Luxury Brand Partners. “We feel that by combining our shared values, vision and goals, this new alliance will lead to a substantial and dynamic partnership.”

“The minute we met David, Alexis and the rest of the Pulp Riot team, we felt their commitment to the beauty community,” explains Albie Cortes of LBP’s advanced strategy and business development.

“We’re rolling out in a different way, because demand was higher than we could accommodate,” David reports.

“Our industry is behind when it comes to technology and online shopping,” David says. “Stylists have their cell phones in hand 24/7. We hear distributors talk about how challenging it is to get in to talk about their products, but we’re marketing messages to those same stylists all day long.”

Click below to meet four of artists featured by Butterfly Circus:

Iris Smith (@glamiris)

Jay Wesley Olson

Ash Fortis (@XoStylistXo)

Laura Kaszoni (@lalasupdos)


For reprint and licensing requests for this article, Click here.